A plan being promoted by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is worrying a lot of Arab Israelis who fear they might become collateral damage in any peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The plan, first proposed by Mr. Lieberman almost a decade ago, has been brought to prominence in the past three months. It calls for the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state to be moved a few kilometres west so that an area in central Israel, populated almost entirely by Arab Israelis, would fall inside the state of Palestine.
Mr. Lieberman is quick to point out that this does not amount to a transfer of population. "Nobody will be expelled or banished," he reassured a conference of Israeli ambassadors in January. The people won't be moved, he said, "but the border will move."
The hillside territory that would be ceded to Palestine is one side of a valley known as Wadi Ara. It includes communities such as Ara and Kafr Qara, as well as the city of Umm al-Fahm, home of Raed Saleh, a popular former mayor and leader of the radical northern wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel.
The handover would be part of a land swap in which Israel would receive sovereignty over tracts of land in the West Bank on which large Jewish settlements have been built. In one fell swoop, Israel would guarantee its claim to the large settlements, reduce its Arab population of 1.6 million by some 200,000, and be rid of some people the Foreign Minister views as troublemakers.
Mr. Lieberman said he sees "no reason why they [Arab Israelis living in the area] should not join their Palestinian brothers and sisters under full Palestinian sovereignty and become citizens of the future Palestinian state that they long for so ardently."
In February, the plan was given a thumbs-up by the Foreign Ministry's legal department, which cited numerous historic examples from Greece and Bulgaria to Honduras and El Salvador as precedents.
But it was widely condemned by Arab Israelis in interviews conducted in the area. They may support the creation of a neighbouring Palestinian state but they were born in Israel and appreciate the benefits of staying there, most insist.
"He didn't ask me if I support this move," said Bashar Yahia, chief scientist of a research centre and owner of a beautiful new house in Kafr Qara. "Why does he have the right to move us?"
Officials in the Foreign Ministry explain that the plan would allow Arab Israelis to remain in Israel if they wish, although they would have to be relocated to another part of the country.
Such a choice is not an option for many Arabs in Israel who are particularly attached to their home towns. "How dare he," said Adel Jasmawe, a nurse at an Israeli hospital and a father of four who lives in the small community of Ara. "This is our village," he said. Having to choose between his family roots and the country in which he was born, is "a choice I should not have to make."
"This is our land; he [Lieberman] has no right to change anything," said Assad Mahameed, 38, a house painter who lives in Umm al-Fahm. Mr. Mahameed cites a number of practical benefits on which he and his family depend. "I have a good income, health insurance, a pension. Under Abu Mazen, I'd have nothing," he said, referring to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, by his nickname.
Officials also point out that the plan calls for benefits such as these to continue for the lifetime of those people who stay in their homes and become part of the Palestinian state. People, however, worry that their Israel-funded benefits could be cut off at the first sign of any trouble between the two countries.
Mr. Mahameed's children – Mohammed, 9, and Yasmine, 7 – say they want to be a lawyer and a doctor, respectively. He doesn't see that happening in Palestine.
More than benefits, people here worry about a lack of freedom and possible conflict in the new Palestine.
"Look at the countries around us," said Sami Majnar, a Tel Aviv waiter who lives in Umm al-Fahm. "Look at all the blood in Syria. Look at Egypt. It's a dictatorship in Ramallah," he said, referring to the seat of the Palestinian Authority. "We're much better off here."
Hadeel Mahajne, 36, a medical secretary and mother of two in Umm al-Fahm, agrees. "My heart is in Palestine," she says, "and I would be happy to be a citizen there. But, only when they've established a real democracy."
The lone person of about two dozen interviewed who said he was keen to be part of Palestine was an 18-year-old who gave his name only as Omar. "I am a Palestinian," he said, as he washed and brushed his horse, "and I am ready to become a Palestinian citizen."
Ironically, this territory was never expected to be part of Israel. The 1947 United Nations partition plan that called for all of Mandate Palestine to be divided into an Arab and a Jewish state placed Wadi Ara in the Arab state. And the 1949 ceasefire, arrived at after a year of fighting, had Jordanian forces holding this territory.
It was Israel that wanted the area to be included in its state, as a sort of buffer from areas of trouble further east, such as the Arab city of Jenin. And the Green Line was moved to accommodate it. Now Mr. Lieberman, speaking for a substantial number of Israelis, wants to return it.
There's one extended Arab family that would welcome the area becoming part of Palestine: the 300 or so members of the Hatib family who live in a no-man's-land in the hamlet of Daher al-Maleh.
This sliver of territory was firmly rooted inside the West Bank – on the Palestinian side of the Green Line – until 2001. That's when Israel erected a security barrier to separate Israel from the Palestinian territory. However, the fence ended up running east of the Daher al-Maleh, leaving the Hatib family on the Israeli side of the barrier.
The people's status hasn't changed. They carry Palestinian identity cards and every car in the village still sports the green licence plates of the Palestinian Authority.
As well, the people in Daher are forbidden from going into Israel without a permit, meaning the children must cross into the West Bank every day – through an Israeli military checkpoint – to go to school; the sick must seek medical help on the other side, in Jenin or Ramallah; even grocery shopping must be done in the West Bank.
"We'd love it if we didn't have to live like this," said Aye Atif Hatib, 31. And it would be "even better if Umm al-Fahm were part of our country too."
Another anomaly is the attractive Jewish Israeli residential area of Mei Ami nestled among Arab communities, just outside Umm al-Fahm, right near the Green Line. This neighbourhood of about 300 began as a military base that was converted to a civilian kibbutz and now is a private co-operative. Last year marked its 50th anniversary.
If the border with a Palestinian state is moved to admit the Arab communities, it would be hard to keep Mei Ami in Israel.
"I don't think it's ever going to happen," said Eyal, a father of three, who cited his military occupation as reason for not disclosing his family name. "The Arabs here will never go for it."
"Israel is the best thing that ever happened to these people," he said, referring to the Arab Israelis of the area. "It's better to be a second-class citizen here than a first-class citizen in Palestine," he said, acknowledging that Arab Israelis don't enjoy all the opportunities afforded Jewish Israelis.
But what if the border did move and Mei Ami ended up in Palestine?
"People here vote Labour and left of Labour," he replied. "If we were told we had to leave our homes, we'd go, without a fight."
All this depends, however, on there being a peace agreement, and talks are all but finished for now.
This means that, for now at least, a lot of Arab Israelis in this area are hoping the negotiations never get back on track.
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